As the weather has now started to turn, winter tours in Ukraine can be tough so I’m in no immediate rush to get back out there.
It’s time like this I turn to my box of 6×6 images. Taken when I was studying for my degree at university here in Coventry, there are hundreds. But one image that always jumps out at me is the one below of Natasha.
This is one of the last that I took of Natasha and I remember the day well. I’d agreed to take pictures of her, and in typical Ukrainian fashion it consisted of holding flowers, hugging trees or statues and posing near monuments.
These were the shots she wanted and are typical of the images which grace the profiles of many a pretty ‘devushka’ on VK and similar social media platforms. On any given day, you’ll see young ladies all over Ukraine (and many other former Soviet countries) doing exactly the same.
Later in the day, I managed to convince Natasha to take me to where she lived. Her home environment. We took a bus ride to a small soviet apartment block on the outskirts of Kiev which she shared with her friends. It was fairly cramped by western standards but considered ‘normalna’ for many here.
Cramped but comfortable, religious icons shared the shelves with perfume and nail polish. We sat in the kitchen, drank lemon tea, chatted about life in Ukraine and what the future might hold.
She always looked immaculate though and one would never have placed her in such humble surroundings. She’d have looked more at home stepping into a Bentley down on Khreschatyk with an array of designer shopping bags.
The strange thing is, when I started documenting those who joined marriage agencies in Ukraine I thought it was all about ‘love’ and the search for it. But after a showing people a selection of my images it’s not about that at all. Or that’s not how it came across to people anyway.
I think I was getting ready to present my images for an exhibition at the The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham when somebody said ‘When I look at these pictures Dean, I don’t feel they are about love, but more about loneliness’. And after closer analysis, I realised that’s exactly what they were about.
Two weeks ago I returned back to the UK after travelling over to eastern Europe on my motorbike. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time. A very long time in fact. I’d put it off last year, and the year before that, but this year I was determined it was going to happen.
I won’t lie. The going was tough at times. One day I covered just under 600 miles. And it was one extreme or the other. Long, never ending roads in western Europe or poor, almost impassable roads in eastern Europe.
Although Bulgaria and Romania were fantastic countries, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for me was always going to be Ukraine. Gaining access was not so simple though. Travelling into Ukraine from Romania was a struggle as I was selected for an ‘interview’ by border guards. The process was very similar to what one might expect from people in authority stuck in what you could describe as ‘soviet’ ways. I can’t say that it was totally unexpected , but just a long drawn out inconvenience. Once everything was ‘normalna’ I was allowed to enter.
It’s hard to describe how it felt when I had my first beer that evening in Ukraine. Washed down with a bowl of borscht and chorniy xleb (black bread), followed by salad, meat and potatoes. It was as near to heaven as I could get.
After spending one night in the Carpathian mountains it was then onto Kalush. There were poor roads (as expected) but fantastic people all along the way. Whenever I stopped for petrol people were very curious about the bike with many taking ‘selfies’, no doubt for their VK or Facebook page.
The following morning I headed out of Ukraine and into Poland making my way home. It was a short stopover in Ukraine, but worthwhile none the less. As I was leaving through the west of Ukraine, the large ATO billboards at the roadside were a constant reminder of the ongoing war in the east of the country.
Hopefully I’ll return next year and spend more time there.
Where I first started visiting Ukraine I made friends with a local guy called Dima (Dmytro). He took me under his wing. Introduced me to his family, drove me all over Ukraine in his car with his devushka (girlfriend) Masha. I even spent Christmas day with his family in a village not too far from Kiev. He’s never asked for a penny in return.
Dimas father lives outside Kiev and took me ice fishing. Treated me like a proper member of the family. He invited me to return in the summer so he could take me out on his boat once the ice had thawed and do some proper fishing.
Whilst having a conversation on Skype with Dima last week he informed me that his father had joined the Ukrainian army and was heading out to the East. At that time he was training with the army 70 kilometres outside Kiev.
Earlier today Dima informed me that his father is now in Debaltseve (Donetsk Oblast) with his regiment. They are encircled and as he puts it, ‘in a bad position‘. He goes on to tell me ‘there are some small roads they get supply from, and they hold fortified positions, but Russians want to close the encirclement completely, our troops do everything to prevent that, the battle goes on for 4 days so far’.
Below is an image of Dima (on the right) and his father (currently serving with the Ukrainian army). I can’t begin to imagine how Dima feels at this time and my thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.
As you may be aware, my work has recently been exhibited in Madrid as part of the 5 Plus 5 exhibition and will be coming to Birmingham here in the UK in March. It features four of my images from my ongoing projects in Ukraine.
I couldn’t make the opening night in Madrid but below is a short video.
Well here we are again at the end of another year. Like previous years it was mainly based around my long term projects in Ukraine. Travelling backwards and forwards between there and the UK and juggling a full time job in-between (not to mention family life). It’s been a struggle.
As we enter 2015, I’m looking forward to seeing my work exhibited by 5 Plus 5 at the Library of Birmingham in March. Grain Photography Hub (who are based at the library) have given me an enormous amount of support over the past couple of years and continue to do so. I honestly can’t thank them enough.
Next September I’m riding my motorcycle to Ukraine along with a couple of other riders. They’ve never been to Ukraine before so I’m hoping they’ll be impressed at what they see and want to return just like I did. It’ll be a hard ride getting there (3 days I’m guessing) but there will be plenty of time for ‘r n’ r’ once we arrive. We’ve yet to sort out a proper itinerary but I’m hoping to squeeze in another trip to Chernobyl. Ultimately, what I want is for the other riders to meet the people there and see a different side to Ukraine. Different to what is being portrayed in the media.
To say things have been eventful in Ukraine in the past year would be an understatement. My projects will continue regardless. For a small number, Euro Maidan in Kiev became a circus for selfies, self promotion and people generally cashing in on a bad situation. I was pleased when the tents were finally cleared in an attempt to restore some kind of normality and for the new government to move forward. Euro Maidan did achieve its goal and that’s what counts. It forced change and those who gave their lives for the freedom of others will never be forgotten. Слава Україні! Героям слава!
Like many visual artists, I’m posting links to my work via my Facebook page Here. Although many frown upon Facebook (for a variety of reasons) I’ve found it one of the easiest ways to share work and interact with those on the move. If you’re not on Facebook though, you can follow me on Twitter Here.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you all for following my blog and to spare a thought for those who at present are displaced in Ukraine not knowing when, or if, they will ever be able to return to their homes.
Happy new year.
I am pleased to report that I have had four images selected to be shown in the 5 Plus 5 exhibitions which are to be held in both Madrid and Birmingham. Although I won’t be available to attend the exhibition opening in Madrid, I will be at the launch in Birmingham which opens in Spring 2015.
More details can be found Here.
As summer draws to a close I managed to make a final trip to Ukraine before the cold weather sets in. Those who have been here will know exactly what I mean. Hot to cold is almost like the flick of a light switch. Tanned legs switch to tights and sunglasses to scarfs.
With a cancelled flight cutting my trip short by two days, it made a short trip even shorter. So with no time to lose, I flew to Kiev then headed straight to Poltava by bus. A journey over 200 miles costing less than £5.
Arriving in Poltava, I spent much of my time mixing with locals and talking to them about the current situation in Ukraine. Naturally I remained objective and wanted to hear stories from both sides of the fence, but it was fairly unanimous. They told me that before the war, the city was split. Some classed themselves as being closer to Russia than Ukraine, others closer to Ukraine. And that was never a problem. But that all changed when Russia invaded. It was at that point that they told me that they ‘had‘ to make a choice.
Looking at all the blue and yellow around the city it was clear to see that that the majority sided with the Kiev government. They want to stay Ukrainian. In fact, there were no signs anywhere of pro Russian support.
As I left Poltava to head back to Kiev I really wanted to be heading further east to Kharkov where news was coming in of clashes between pro Russian and pro Ukrainian demonstrators on freedom square. I was gutted to be heading home.